Yesterday’s On This Day featured focused on 1996, when Premiership Sunderland beat Second Division Watford in the Coca-Cola Cup. Three years earlier though, the two clubs had been on level terms in more than one sense - both sides had finished 1992-93 in the bottom half of the second tier and were expected to do likewise again in the following season, with the idea being emphasised as a match between the pair ended all square on this date in 1993.
Exactly 11 years before that – on the last occasion the Lads had contested a league fixture on the 25th of September, a previous trip to Vicarage Road had proven to be one of the club’s darkest days.
The 8-0 defeat Sunderland suffered was felt for quite some time, but they had at least managed to hold out until after ten minutes before the flood gates opened.
Sunderland ended up trailing even earlier than that on their sorry anniversary return, prompting fears of another long afternoon, but this time they came back fighting – literally in the case of striker Phil Gray, who was dismissed after only 23 minutes following a clash with Hornets midfielder Andy Hessenthaler.
The team were already back on equal terms score line wise however thanks to Gary Owers’ equaliser moments earlier, and fuelled by the sense of injustice felt following the red card they battled hard to make up for the shortfall in numbers.
Both goals in a hectic opening quarter of the game had been scrappy in the extreme.
Barry Ashby gave the hosts the lead after four minutes following a poorly defended free kick, whilst even sloppier work at the other end finally saw Owers’ finish evade two Watford players on the line to make it 1-1.
The strike was one of several important touches from Owers, who had a superb game thereafter and whose engine helped cover the slack caused by Gray’s departure.
Initially buoyed by a first away goal of the season, hopes were slightly dashed soon after when referee Arthur Smith sent off ‘Tippy’ for what he felt was violent conduct.
Sunderland didn’t agree however, suggesting that Gray was simply trying to free himself from a headlock, and with manager Terry Butcher being so incensed by the decision that he felt unable to meet the press afterwards for fear of speaking out of turn it was left to Gordon Armstrong to speak instead.
The skipper mused that the incident had galvanised the Lads, and for large points afterwards they certainly looked the most likely to pick up a win. Paul Furlong did force one top save from Alec Chamberlain, but the nine men in front of the keeper were in a resolute mood and otherwise looked solid, even managing to create a few chances of their own.
When Sunderland drew at Watford last weekend it was a bonus to go with a very good start to the current campaign. Back in 1993 though the side were struggling, and despite the afternoon seeing the Rokerites all pulling in the same direction to earn a first point on the road that season it still ended with them remaining bottom of the table for the time being.
It was at least a false position in the eyes of home boss Glenn Roeder mind, who unlike his counterpart Butcher, did comment post-match and referred to them as a “quality side”.
Sunderland fans were likewise impressed with the determination and endeavour seen from their side as it wore a rare combination of red and white stripes with white shorts, and they were grateful for not witnessing the raising of the white flag instead. At times the game was testy, Smith handed out cautions for time wasting, dissent and a late foul, but it was still a vast improvement on 1982 as far as the away supporters were concerned.
Saturday 25 September 1993
Endsleigh League Division One
Watford 1 (Ashby 4)
Sunderland 1 (Owers 19)
Sunderland: Chamberlain; Ma. Gray, Melville, Bennett, Ord; Owers, Ferguson, Armstrong, Russell (Mi. Gray 83); Goodman, P. Gray. Unused: Norman, Howey
Vicarage Road, attendance 7,694